youngstown pen pal program

Building Meaningful Friendships One Letter at a Time

Jan 4 2023

Writing letters may sound archaic in our digital age. However, for some of our team members along with a group of fourth graders, it’s an old-fashioned art bringing new, unlikely friends together.

For more than a decade, the Mission committee at Mercy Health – St. Joseph Warren Hospital has operated a pen pal program where our Youngstown employees are paired with pen pals from Warren City Jefferson Elementary’s fourth grade class.

During the school year these pen pals will write back and forth, focusing on a different topic each month. Some of these topics include introducing themselves through a biography, describing what they’re thankful for, sharing what is special to them during the holidays, explaining what love means to them and more.

Recently, these pen pals shared their holiday-themed letters, and each student was also gifted a special ornament. It was also a record year for this program, with more than 80 students participating as pen pals.

“I have been a pen pal since the program began around 10 to 12 years ago,” Tammy Rienzi, one of our care coordination managers, shares. “It has brought me much happiness, and some tears over the years, but it is always a rewarding experience since I get to know my pen pal through the monthly letters. When writing my letters, I try to have uplifting and happy content as some of these children have been through so much, physically and mentally, and I feel these letters are a chance for a positive, happy connection with someone.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pen pals would celebrate the end of the school year with a field trip to St. Joseph Warren Hospital. It was one of the most enjoyable moments every year for our team members to see their young pen pals’ faces light up when they were finally able to meet each other. The day of fun would continue as they toured the hospital, share stories, connect and spend time together.

One year, the hospital even closed the cafeteria to play a game of wheelchair basketball for one of the program’s pen pals. Then, before the young pen pals would leave, they are given a book bag filled with books and goodies.

“I remember one pen pal was someone who was very quiet, but he communicated with me when coming to St. Joe’s for their end-of-the-year field trip and participated in all the activities,” Tammy recalls. “At the end of the visit, he whispered to me ‘I will never forget you.’ I found out the next day that he rarely spoke to anyone, and the teachers were so surprised to see the interaction between us. It made the experience even more precious to me.”

It is everyone’s hope the field trip will be brought back soon!

However, even during the pandemic, the team continued to write letters and find ways to connect with their pen pals. And our team members still dropped off their book bags and sent a video at the end of the school year introducing themselves to their pen pals.

“It was wonderful to watch the smiles on the faces of the children when they received their books and backpacks,” Charlotte Gardiner MSN, RN, MBA, president of St. Joseph Warren Hospital, shares. “It has also been incredible to watch the leadership team at St. Joseph Warren Hospital in action. They are so engaged in this very meaningful program and have made a difference in the lives of their pen pals as well as the communities we serve. I am very proud and blessed to work alongside this amazing team every day.”

Steve Pavlak, one of our market respiratory managers, adds, “being part of the pen pal program since its inception and even during COVID, it’s always been a pleasure to take part of the program offered to our young minds. I feel it’s important to share the importance of family, living with God’s presence in our lives and to try to instill in them that their education is the key to success in their lives.”

This program is a living testament to our ministry’s commitment to our mission, vision and values. Our team members’ dedication to improving the lives of others goes far beyond their job titles and daily work. And in return, their pen pals may make an even greater impact on the lives of our employees.

“I remember something special about every one of my pen pals,” Tammy shares. “I pray I make a difference to each one of them, just like they do for me. I am very thankful and proud of St. Joseph Warren Hospital for having our amazing pen pal program.”

Learn about the health care services we offer at Mercy Health.

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